Before Joan Crawford, Bette Davis or Olivia De Haviland ever took to the silver screen as aging deranged shock killers, there was the one and only, Gloria Swanson, putting them all to shame in her quintessential role, (with old Hollywood and all its glamour beautifully displayed), as the infamous former silent screen siren, Norma Desmond.
Sunset Boulevard begins as the story of a down on his luck writer at the end of his rope and out of hope with the whole writing business. Things truly look bleak for young Joe Gillis, played by William Holden.
Behold, the Guy in the Pool
The tale of the guy in the pool, our narrator, who turns out to be a B movie writer with little critical success to date. His journey to the pool, however, begins a few months earlier, but still on the sunny side of Sunset Boulevard.
Joe Gillis, (before his untimely demise), has missed three car payments, needs nearly three hundred dollars to keep his financial creditors at bay (to thwart repossession of his last remaining asset, his car), and is absolutely desperate for any writing work.
After knocking down every producer’s door, ringing the phone off every hook and chasing down every lead with his latest script, Joe has resigned himself to leaving Hollywood for his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. There he can start over and earn a sensible living as a copywriter at the local paper.
Even a humble reader at Sheldrake studios, Betty Schaefer, (played by Nancy Olson), sees through his lackluster script as rehashed nonsense unworthy of another chance at celluloid success.
His friend, Sheldrake, agrees with her brutal synopsis. Joe, himself, agrees with her brutal synopsis. Grim prospects, hellish rewrites and ensuing poverty seem to lay ahead in the future for the young, Mr. Gillis.
Just as he finishes hashing out an escape from the city with the hot car to start his life anew, the financial creditors spot him at a light on the street.
First he loses them in a high speed chase! Then, just as his tire pops, he turns his car into a rundown driveway and hides it in a secluded garage, which just happens to be on Sunset Boulevard.
Joe Enters A World of Privilege Forgotten By Time
Joe steps out of the old jalopy to assess his peculiar surroundings and is spotted, quickly, by the lady of the house.
She calls to him across the neglected courtyard, and before Joe can explain himself, is ushered up the stairs by her faithful butler, Max Von Mayleer played by Erich Von Stroheim.
There, he finds the lady of the house, mourning the loss of her companion.
Joe, dutifully horrified, explains her mistake and realizes that she is the one and only, silent screen star legend, Norma Desmond.
Noticeably agitated, she goes into a royal huff about the evils of “talkies”, learns his occupation contributes to the barrage of offensive sounds then orders him from the house!
Until, she remembers her own script.
Norma sees this as fate for him to read her life’s work and handwritten literary masterpiece. Ah, the Story of Salome; the tale of the ancient scorned princess, that dances the dance of the seven veils for her lover, a holy man. He rejects her, so she then has him beheaded. The head is mounted on a silver platter. “Kissing his cold dead lips.” Norma says. The ultimate penalty for rejecting her love.
Joe is intrigued by her mad, mystical air this devotion to Salome (she pronounces it “Salomie”) and not without mention, her abundance of creature comforts in her mansion.
He slips into Norma’s lush, luxurious world and begins to lose himself to her magnetic charms.
As he reads her tortured script, there’s the long suffering Max in the background, for whatever was needed to make them comfortable.
Max is always there with a glass of chilled champagne or a lamp for reading convenience and of course, there was also, watchful Norma.
Watching Joe read her work, intently while smoking, like a black widow spider perched on her web and spinning her silk threads all around her defenseless victim.
Joe doesn’t enjoy her constant supervision and matronly attempts at affection.
He wants to take the script home but she doesn’t want it to leave the house! He can stay there (in the room above the garage), read it there, type up her work and produce an actual script. Joe need not worry about the money, ‘everything can be arranged’, Norma says.
Though this form of financial support is often a ghostwriter’s dream, for all her generosity, Norma never lets him out of sight for very long.
Queer and Queerer
The next morning, (after awakening to the sound of her ghastly pipe organ playing gayly throughout the whole house) Joe finds his personal belongings, from his apartment across town, unpacked and all around his little room above her garage.
Joe marches angrily to the great room and protests to the obvious invasion of privacy! He’s offended but is reminded, it’s also a part of the job.
Joe acquiesces to her wild eccentricities, strange routines and settles into the odd bouts of madness and drudgery that was Norma’s life of privilege.
One night, over a private showing of her old silent pictures, Joe begins to understand just how far removed from reality, the grand diva, Norma Desmond has become.
She claims the demand of “talkies” has ended her fabulous career in the silent pictures! The current heads of studio were mere fools for bowing to the demands of modern convention, demanding the ears of the audience as well as the eyes, was preposterous, in her opinion!
Then and there, before a startled Joe, she vows a triumphant return to the silver screen! This time, in style, with her passionate tragic love story, (written from the recesses of her heart), the exploits of the murderous princess, Salome.
The “Perks” of the Job
Having read the disorganized script, the jumble of melodramatic mush, Joe is more than skeptical of the film’s possible success.
She, as the author and the star, had to have the most lines, the most screen time and couldn’t bare any cuts to the script. The fans that still sent her fan mail and begged for her photographs wouldn’t stand for it! (Or so she thinks.)
Until reality set in, Joe knows her money is enough to keep him comfortable. He had a job finally, all he had to do was go along with her demands.
The thing was, working on the silly script was Joe’s only excuse for remaining within her sad, encroaching plush walls.
They continue on, Joe organizes her script and fits into her life like a glove. Norma prefers to keep him near as he works and they settle into a little routine, when suddenly, (during her weekly bridge game), his persistent creditors find him, even come to the front door!
They have come for his last piece of independence from Norma, his beloved car. While she cut cards with her old cronies, his livelihood was being towed from the garage.
Despite his urgency, madam will not give him the money. She will not halt the reposession.
After all, “we already have a car”, she cooes to him.
To him it was life and death, after all, that’s what brought him there in the first place! With some thought, Joe begins to get over the loss of his car. To look on the bright side, he still had his health, Norma’s wealth, and really, that old clunker was one of a kind.
Joe stayed put.
A New Year’s Eve to Remember
Joe couldn’t get over her satin and lace lifestyle. She had the best of everything; the finest wines, foods, fabrics and furniture as a former celebrity. And madam was most generous with her young writer.
After purchasing Joe a brand new stylish wardrobe, (check out that valcuna) a sudden leaky roof in his room above the garage forces him into the “first husband” suite within the big house.
Without much effort, Joe has become accustomed to the playboy lifestyle.
Norma finds him a comfortable companion quite suitable for her rich decadent lifestyle. He reluctantly slips into the role like working in a new pair of shoes.
The highly anticipated night of New Year’s Eve is upon them and we find the grand madam in high spirits!
The mansion has been refreshed for the New Year, the best of everything is laid out, all arranged by the great lady herself.
When Joe arrives, dressed in his new tux and tails, Norma wants to drink and dance the tango. Her young companion obliges, and is restlessly waiting for the other guests to arrive.
It is within that decadent fare Norma’s true desires become undeniably clear to Joe.
There are no other guests, but embarrassingly, he thinks, Norma fancies herself in love with her young writer/companion.
Drunkenly, Norma plans their happy future together; she’ll fill the pool, buy him a boat, they’ll sail to Hawaii together. Why not, she’s rich?
Joe becomes irritated by her suggestion of a relationship between them. This wasn’t part of the job, after all.
Joe, a man easily half her 50 years, is completely put off by the dawning realization of her needs and tells her straight: he’s not the one for her.
Norma lashes out at the rejection, even slaps him!
Enraged, she storms across the grand ballroom then runs up the stairs and out of sight.
Joe takes it all in strides and makes a hasty exit, with his raincoat in hand, hitchhikes his way in the rain back into the city.
He had to be around his own kind for awhile.
Deciding to check in with his old buddy, Artie Green, he finds a joyous rustic group of his same ilk. Young, happy writers singing and laughing, unsullied by the cruel ways of Hollywood.
There’s good Betty Schaefer, the reader employed by Sheldrake, Artie Green’s fiancé, reminding him of the life he was missing while he was busy being kept in a guilded cage by Norma.
She pulls him off to the side and mentions being able to get him a job writing again. Alone, they have an undeniably chemistry both just feel instantly. They vibe as he waits for the phone. She suggests a joint project based of a character she actually liked in his story.
Joe prepares to crash out on the couch for a few weeks, he calls the gruff Max to prepare for his things to be sent immediately, when instead, he finds out the tragic news.
Great Stars Have Great Pride
In his short absence, the grand madam took Joe’s razor from his room and slashed her wrists in despair after he rejected her.
Overcome by guilt, (she’s been so good to him and at his lowest point!), Joe rushes from Artie’s girl and the young party to be by Norma’s side.
As the band plays on in the ballroom, he goes to find her, sprawled out on her lavish sleigh bed. Her tiny body is wrapped in ruffles and lace, both wrists bandaged.
Joe is struck with how vulnerable she is in those desperate, pitiable hours and just as the clock strikes midnight, tenderly kisses Norma as he wishes her a happy new year.
Soon along with sharing her life, he will also share her resplendent sleigh bed.
Mr. Norma Desmond the 4th
Joe Gillis, finally got that pool he always wanted. He was still working on that mess of a script, but now the perks of the job including even more fringe benefits.
His status has instantly elevated from hired help to constant companion to boy toy lover.
The stars have aligned and according to her astrologist, it was time to send the script out to Cecil B. DeMille!
Joe is less than thrilled at the news. There was no way they would actually make her bizarre movie.
Unphased, Norma goes to great lengths to keep him entertained as they wait to hear from the studio.
She performs what Joe has dubbed “The Norma Desmond Follies”, complete with a realistic Charlie Chaplin impersonation.
It’s all more than anything you could ever imagine and everything a Norma Desmond fan could ever hope for. But Joe is not a “Norma Desmond fan”.
Soon, incredulously, Paramount Picture Studios begins calling.
Paramount’s Brightest Star Returns
Norma’s ego is slightly wounded at the lack of personal touch her script has received, after all, she and DeMille had achieved so much success together in the past!
Her pictures put Paramount Studios on the map! So why are there assistants calling, when he should be jumping at the opportunity to work again with his “Brightest Star”?
Norma goes to confront the great director at the studio herself, decked out in her finest clothes and her face perfectly painted, half hidden in lace.
There she finds her old crew, 30 years later, still enthralled by her grace and regal presence among them.
Shocked at her sudden appearance, DeMille graciously accommodates the very inconvenience of her, even sets her up in his director’s chair. Then he quickly phones the one responsible for her misunderstanding, Gordon Caul, (the prop assistant), and realizes they were calling to use her car in an upcoming Crosby picture. Not that awful Salome script.
He turns and realizes the grand homecoming taking place in his studio. The madam has returned, her old crew puts her under the spotlight and both still love her. All the fawning and adulation is too much for Cecil B. DeMille to bear.
He cannot tell her the truth; time has moved on, they would not be working again now, or in the future, because her script about Salome was garbage. He can’t do that to her.
Cecil B. DeMille won’t burst her warbling illusions of a grand return and collaboration. He lets her believe if the opportunity presented itself, they would work.
Hopeful Norma beams at this prospect, and it’s all DeMille can do to be rid of her.
The Persistence of the Betrothed Betty
While DeMille meets with Norma, Max directs Joe’s attention up to the current reader’s room, Norma’s old dressing room. Just at that moment, Betty walks by and Joe excuses himself from Max, then bounds up the stairs to chat with her.
Betty is pleased as punch to see him, she had been trying to get ahold of him ever since he’d rushed out. She still wants to write that story.
Joe gives her a few suggestions but at the blaring of the car horn, he leaves it as just that, her work with his suggestions.
He goes back down the stairs where Max is waiting and tells Joe the bittersweet news. Paramount’s assistants were calling, hounding them, and madam’s car was wanted but madam was not.
But no one in her inner circle could bring themselves to tell her the bad news.
Learning the truth would shatter her fragile ego, completely destroy her, and they all know it.
Instead the charade carries on, and Norma stays clueless. In her mind, her public awaits and she must prepare herself!
The beauty ritual begins and it’s in that big torturous production that poor Norma begins to lose some of her charm.
The Beginning of the End
Norma is desperate to turn back the clocks for her role as Salome. She obsesses over every line, pore and wrinkle. She undergoes every beauty treatment imaginable to look her best for those unforgiving cameras.
Sparing no expensive for her awaiting audience, nothing was out of bounds for that great return to Paramount Studios.
She examines every morsel of food, shares the loss of every half pound with giddy schoolgirl delight. It was so very real, to her.
Joe is there through everything; the endless preening, the constant fussing, the stressing and superficiality of it all. He is increasingly put off by his inclusion in her hallucinations of grandeur.
He begins to sneak out at night. While Norma sleeps, Joe takes the car and goes out, back to Betty and their real script with real potential and possibility.
His sneaking around and alternative pursuits do not go unnoticed.
Norma suspects it could be a girl, someone who could offer him what she cannot: youth. Just how can she compete, a woman of her advancing years, with such cruel competition as that?
Betty’s youth, her optimistic air is no doubt intoxicating and the chemistry between them, undeniably strong. Joe knows, Betty feels it but she is still engaged to his pal, Artie.
Then of course, there was what to do with Norma, waiting for a curtain call that would never come, for an audience that has long since moved on.
Joe owed her so much all ready, could he really put an end to the lifestyle he had become accustomed to? Walk away, start over, and try again?
Norma can sense the distance growing between herself and the young writer, but despite her growing suspicions, Joe does not stray far for long.
He returns and finds poor, demented Norma grappling for her hold on her young lover. She lowers herself, then does the unthinkable to keep him near.
Sour grapes emerge from within that madness to shine a new dark light on the greatest silent star.
That jealousy she feels, the suspicions that arise within the great Norma Desmond, the fading beauty, bubble up within that terrible tension and take root.
Can Joe’s ego survive these blows? Can Norma’s?
How can things go on between them, now that so much has gone wrong?
What does it take to be a star? Is it the rise to fame, the upkeep to maintain that prescence, the way people treat you or the way you treat others?
Is loyalty a requirement of the job, or of the heart? Is the penalty fitting of the crime in this case, all fair in love and war?
What really happened to Joe Gillis? How does he end up in that pool, he loved so much? How will Norma face the crowds under this shame?
Enter Salome, Stage Right
So many things lead to the events that transpired that night, the night the guy who writes B movies ended up in the pool of Norma Desmond.
Clearly, the owner of the house has a lot to explain, but she doesn’t seem quite like herself lately. The police and detectives can’t get a straight answer out of her, what were they supposed to do, haul her away? A great lady?
With so many people feeding the illusions of this one poor woman, past her prime but still clinging to the spotlight, can they blame her for what’s come to pass?
The cameras she worked so hard for are now waiting.
Not movie cameras this time, but news reels, but still! A great star knows the show must always go on! But how? How could the great Norma Desmond ever live this down?
What about poor Max, what happens to his madam? How will they get her down the stairs to face justice and the waiting crowds?
The public awaits! Fame, fans and success is something every actor strives for, what happens when you receive that precious wish? How do you survive in the shadows of a business that no longer acknowledges your place in the sun at the top?
All this for the mad dark princess, realized by one who felt her fatal flaw…
Norma’s life work about that mad, murderous princess, with so much pride; Salome tries to seduce a man beyond her station, then has him murdered for spite because he rejects her charms?
Surely her tale deserves to be told or at the very least, shown?
How does the world receive the performance her fans have been waiting for, that Joe died for, that the great Norma Desmond went positively mad for??
What becomes of the ones who lived and loved on Sunset Boulevard?
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